Gorbachev's visit

BY this time arrangements will have been made for Mikhail Gorbachev to meet members of Congress (some of them) informally and semiofficially while he is in Washington next week. It has to be arranged this way because so many voices were raised against allowing him to address a joint session of the Congress. It is perhaps just as well that the idea of the address to the joint session never jelled, but it failed for the wrong reasons.

The right reason for calling it off is that it might have conveyed a mistaken impression about United States-Soviet relations, both to the general public and to Mr. Gorbachev himself. It might seem to imply a degree of new friendliness and cooperation which has not yet happened and is not likely to happen in the immediately foreseeable future.

There will need to be many more successful negotiations beyond the pending treaty banning intermediate nuclear weapons from Western Europe before there is likely to be an occasion when it would seem natural for the leader of the Soviet state to be invited before the Congress. It would be a right occasion if friendly applause would be expectable. Unfortunately, there is a prospect of boos and walkouts.

Those who promised either to boo or walk out did so for the wrong reasons. They see in Mr. Gorbachev a representative of all that they dislike, or fear, in the Soviet Union and in its government.

The point they overlook is that Mr. Gorbachev himself is outspokenly opposed to most of those features of the Soviet system and is trying to change them.

What do Americans dislike most in the Soviet system? First, that it is a totalitarian police state that controls manufacture and distribution inefficiently and selectively from the political center. Second, that its armed forces deny independence to many peoples and countries lying along the borders of the Soviet Union. Third, that it is avowedly antireligious and hems in the practice of religion with severe restraint and allows it only under constant government surveillance.

Mr. Gorbachev is not a public advocate of these things. He is an advocate of fixing consumer goods prices in the marketplace. He favors reducing government control over manufacture and distribution. He favors more individual incentive for farmers. He is battling, so far with very little success, against the party apparatus which is resisting change.

He advocates in public greater freedom and self-determination for the people of the ``satellite'' countries. He has been allowing nationalist demonstrations in Lithuania - to the surprise of all concerned. He says he wants to bring Soviet troops out of Afghanistan.

He has said little about religion, but there has been a slight easing of restraints. He has allowed the opening of Roman Catholic churches in Lithuania. He has allowed the import of 10,000 Bibles for Baptists. He has freed 520 political prisoners, of whom half were in prison on antireligious charges.

But the Helsinki Watch Committee calculates that there are still 480 known and identifiable political prisoners in the Soviet Union, of whom 240 are known to be in jail for religious reasons. There have been recent arrests of 30 Hari Krishna leaders who were agitating for recognition and being denied accreditation. Baptists who organize prayer meetings without authorization can land in jail. Some have.

But antireligion under Mr. Gorbachev has been less vigorous than during the Khrushchev years. His interest is largely in economics and foreign policy.

In other words, Mikhail Gorbachev seems to dislike, and seems to be trying to reform or change, most of the conditions and practices in the Soviet Union which Americans most generally dislike.

How sincere he is and how successful he will be is another matter to be tested by time. But certainly he should be encouraged for apparently trying to move in the right directions instead of being booed for the conditions he has inherited from his predecessors.

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